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Hamilton Stone Review #29
Lynda Schor, Fiction Editor
“She doesn’t like women.”
Never mind the difference in species, there’s no reason for this bird to be jealous. She’s gorgeous, if gaudy, and she knows it, all slut-red and preening. She paces the back of an overstuffed leather sofa, eyeing me. Her full-breasted waddle plays like a cartoon, but Julian’s spellbound. He sinks into the sofa, and she teeters over to nibble his ear and nuzzle those highlighted curls I was hoping to clutch. From their intimate murmurs, I’d say we’re on for a ménage-a-trois this evening. Or is that menagerie? I think I might be regressing.
I decide to make nice. Julian hands me a banana and tells me her name is Scarlet. How appropriate. I’m also told, in detail, that she’s a Solomon Island eclectus, a clever, card-holding member of the parrot family, although not quite as gabby as her Amazon cousins. Decidedly more possessive, however. Julian assures me they’re bonded for life, but despite her instinctive need to imprint and all the cooing and clucking rising from their end of the sofa, I’m a bit skeptical. I would never take Julian for the commitment type. For a second, I feel for the bird.
She doesn’t share my sympathies.
I peel the banana and hold it at arm’s length. I may be tentative, but I’m willing. It wouldn’t kill her to meet me halfway, yet Scarlet holds her ground. She eyes me, my offering. Neither one of us blinks. After a moment she waddles sideways. She stops. She waits. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my biceps tremble. There’s not a pilates class in South Beach that prepares you for a battle of will in the animal kingdom. I blink first.
When I arrived in Florida, my new neighbors warned me about the coral snake, another demon in red. It’s deadly poisonous, but supposedly, its mouth is so small it can only bite a person between the toes or fingers, proof there’s always a weakness. I’m not too worried about the snake, but this bird’s dripping venom. In one smooth move, she dives down, plucks the banana from my hand, tosses it aside, and latches onto the skin between my fingers. Her jaw locks shut, and I scream.
“Get her off!”
Next thing I know, we’re dancing. Hopping, flapping, spinning. We slam into a glass coffee table, and Julian yelps. He sidesteps around us and gropes at the air, begging one of us to be careful. I’m not sure which one.
When the dust and feathers settle, we take stock. Scarlet retreats to the top of her cage, and with one last ruffle, she eyes her realm. Down below, I hold out my hand. I’m bleeding. Julian’s head swivels between us. He’s at a loss, but eventually, he scurries into the kitchen. He returns with a damp cloth.
“The rug,” he mutters and drops to his knees.
A Pleasure to Serve
When I got back from the store, Frank and Don were heading for their room to unpack. The body and the head were still in the bed, albeit covered with a sheet, but dangerously close to being discovered. I hustled them out of the doorway telling them that I had to change the linens, sweep the floor, remove some of my things. Real nice and polite they went out to the lounge. Quiet boys, I reflected, and I turned them on a light, admiring their full leather outfits as they sat and thumbed through magazines. They would be a pleasure to serve, I told myself, going back to the room.
I dragged the body and the head...the head belonged to another body as the body had its own head...into the back hall and packed them into a big fiber disposal bag. I rolled the bag out into the yard trying to figure out where to hide it. The ground was frozen and covered with snow so I couldn't dig a hole.
A light came on in the bathroom of the new house next door. I ducked even though the window had opaque privacy panes. The glass was in the daisy pattern, a style I hadn't seen in years. It was nice to know that they still made it. When the light went off I stood up. I wondered if the small pond, within a short distance, might be free of ice. I could probably drag the bundle that far but I would have to stand in icy water and dig in the muck. The body and the head had to be buried deep so that whatever was down there that stripped flesh to the bone did a really good job. Although I’m built well and I’m strong, tonight I wasn't up to it to the effort. Besides, it would take too long.
What to do. It had been a long time, I was out of practice. Here I was in the back yard clutching a big bag that held a body and a head. Frank and Don were inside waiting to get into their rented room. I hoped that they knew how to entertain themselves. I opened the bag and looked at the head which was on top. He had sort of a little smile on his finely featured face. His short blonde hair and mustache still bristled; his blue eyes were open in an ordinary, casual sort of way. Not that awful stare one expects to see. It was a clean job; the head was neat from the body right below the jaw. There were no fragments or anything unpleasant hanging around. He was such a little fellow, dicing up the parts had been easy, nice and clean. Of course there’s the stain on the carpet. Oh well, what’s done is done.
I put the head back and tugged on the body but it was stiff. I had a difficult time turning it around to see its face. I didn't want to dump it out on the snow and then have to wipe it dry. Finally I got, by really yanking, the face up to the opening in the sack. The eyes were closed and it was hard to tell just what color the hair was. The body had been dead a little longer and so the hairless skin was very waxy and white, almost transparent. The dark blue tattoo's were stunning against that porcelain white skin. Reminded me of Delft or maybe the onion pattern I remember from Mama’s kitchen.
This one, Jimmy--little blue eyes is Fred--got drunk and I can’t bear misbehaving in my home. And then Fred smoked some weed out on the porch.
Little Fred was in the bath when I swung the poker on Jimmy. Afterward Fred came out wrapped in a towel and chattered and flirted by opening and closing his knees until, with a start, he stopped. It was the mulled wine I made him while he bathed. A specialty of the house if you get my meaning. He never even asked after Jimmy, just dropped the goblet and remained sitting there...immobile. I stared at him for a while before doing anything. He looked like a little version of me, blond and blue eyed and all, except I’m bigger by half, but he was just as handsome.
I dragged the bag to the other side of the yard, away from the neighbors. It was very cold and I realized that if I left the bag out overnight the head and the body would keep, so I pulled Jimmy’s limbs straight so that they wouldn’t freeze in some unnatural position. I took Fred’s head and put it up next to Jimmy’s head. For a moment they looked like some two-headed creature from those old freak shows. I almost laughed, but I didn't want anyone coming out of the house to see what the fun was all about, so I stifled my amusement.
There were not many trees around and anyone passing on the path could see the yard but I figured that I had to chance it for the night. I scooped up snow and packed it carefully around the form to suggest a little snow covered garden figure. When I saw that the packing of the snow followed the contours of the body, and that it was beginning to look like a sitting snow man, skinny, but still a snowman, I really did have to laugh. I packed on more snow and lovingly sculpted it around the body and around both heads. Who would think twice about a two headed snowman? It was December; I had until March to figure out what to do.
Just for fun I put my cowboy boots on the snow covered feet then padded back into the house in my stocking feet to make sure Frank and Don had a drink and to put fresh sheets on the bed. Running a bed and breakfast is no picnic.
I slept late. When I got up and went in the kitchen I saw that everyone had gone out. I poured myself a cup of tepid coffee and looked out the window. It was a gray day. Glancing at the mound, my snowman, I saw that someone had put two sticks in the snow for noses on the two heads and two plumped up raisins simulating eyes. They were much higher than where the real eyes were and I wanted to correct it, but then thought better of it.
I looked in the bedroom where Frank and Don had slept and saw that they had made the bed and straightened the room. Their toys were put away. I gave them ten points immediately. I didn't know the boys in the other room, they were new, but it was not nearly as neat. There were tit clamps and a greasy towel lying on the floor. I made a mental note...mental note, what a funny phrase, I thought.
After washing up the cups and plates...there were four besides my cup...I went out and brought in more wood. The fire in the big woodstove was down to embers and the indoor woodpile was low. I shook down the ashes and sifted through them, making sure there wasn't any little bony thing that shouldn't be found. I had forgotten yesterday...well, it was a busy day.
Frank and Don came in at noon and I had a big pot of hot soup ready for them. They kicked and stomped in the mud room to get the snow off of their boots, then kicked those off and came into the kitchen in stocking feet. Nice boys, I was real appreciative.
"Good soup." Don said ladling bits and pieces of meat into his mouth, wiping dry his lips with one of the large white napkins I like to use.
"Very good," echoed Frank sipping the broth from his spoon.
I'm glad you like it I replied. I made it yesterday.
The two others guests came straggling in about fifteen minutes later, one after the other. They came right directly through the kitchen door even though I had explained to them about the mud room. Their boots left puddles of water on the wide board floor, but no one seemed to notice but me. It would take hours for the floor to dry and I didn't know how long to scrub it down, wait again for it to dry and then re-wax it. I felt my patience was being tried and went and sat in the rocker, poked out my legs and stared at the fire. High hopes, me and my high hopes.
Late that night, after they all had been hours in bed, I climbed down from the loft over the sitting room where I slept when there are guests. Looking down the hall, I saw that Frank and Don had left their door ajar for the heat but the newcomer’s door was closed tight. I knew that door, it was a real squeaker. I went into the kitchen and got the bottle of safflower oil. After dripping it onto the hinges, I splashed a little on the floor where the door tended to scrape. I didn't want to disturb anyone when I opened it.
I was up early, before Frank and Don, and made the coffee. When they came out into the kitchen I gave them a big smile and each a big cup of coffee along with some corn muffins that I had baked in the night. They nodded to the other bedroom and I just smiled again and said, "sleeping late today." Coffee finished, Frank and Don got their boots on and went out. Today they wanted to hike up to Mountaintop. I said it would take a long time with the snow, but they were determined. Secretly I was glad, there was going to be a lot to do.
As soon as they disappeared into the woods, I turned on the outside hose tap. At first the water was a little sluggish. Some slush in the line but pretty soon it was flowing fast and free and I screwed on the watering hose. Then I dressed the two other guests and dragged them out of their bedroom, and that was not easy, let me tell you. I went out to the shed for the garden bench, put away in September, and set it up right next to the double-headed snowman, under the bare branches of the cherry tree. I propped the glassy eyed two of them up on the bench and stapled their shirt sleeves to the bench slats so that they wouldn't topple over. Then I turned on the hose and began spraying. It seemed to take hours and hours, one thin misty spray, then the wait to do another. But, by late afternoon I could put away the hose and close the outside tap. What a day, I hadn’t even checked the rooms or done the chores.
Frank and Don got back just as I finished. They immediately asked, "Did you do the ice sculpture?"
"Yes." I replied waiting their opinion.
"It's wonderful," they said looking at my work with admiration, "really great. How did you do it?"
"Oh, I just piled up blocks of ice from the pond and then carved it as you see. I sprayed some water on at the end to smooth down any rough edges. I’m glad you like it.”
“They're really so life like. More so than the two-headed snowman. Wait until Bennett and George get back. Are they going to be surprised; what a likeness them side by side. What a likeness."
"Bennett and George are gone," I said. "They left late this morning."
"Oh, that’s too bad," said Don. "You're a real genius. They would sure get a kick out of seeing themselves carved out in ice, and in their leather vests too."
"Yes, they probably would." I replied and feeling really pleased, I went on inside to make some hot peppermint tea as a surprise for Frank and Don. I glanced in their room as I passed and stopped short. The bed was a mess, unmade and yesterday's clothes were on the floor. I could see a greasy dildo poking out from under the pillow. Behind me I heard them laughing and hooting as they opened the kitchen door and came clumping right in on the newly polished boards. Frank was smoking a cigarette.
I turned to the cupboard to get the tea. There were thick sprigs of Rosemary, Thyme and Parsley from the garden. I had picked and dried them in October. Tucked further back were some pouches of wildflower petals and seeds gathered from the woods. A bit of Baneberry, some dried Rosary Pea and some leaves of Belladonna tied with a ribbon. I selected the Rosary Pea and mixed it with the tea.
It would take all night to do its work, but I had the time.
In a Hotel Room
The air in the ambient is somber, cold, and her flight will depart in a few hours. It is not the first time she connects with a stranger that way, in the airport. This time, however, the man is like her brother, but the thought disturbs her. Instead, she thinks of him like an agreeable person and with an exaggerated curiosity.
“I see figures in the sky. Right now there is an opened door, a star hinge.”
She doesn’t see the sky from where she is, feeling, instead, the weight of her hair against the pillow. The hotel is average, with soft linen against her skin, gentle, well ironed. She sits at the edge of the bed and looks at her toenails. They’re red. She feels wet inside. It is strange, to have desire at that moment. So out of place, of purpose. Does she need to say anything?
“Do you see drawings in the sky? I see drawings everywhere. I want to draw you,” he says, writing something on a piece of napkin. Minutes later, he lets go of the pencil and grabs her by the waist.
“There is something about your body and the endless pimples in your skin that makes me thing about the stars in the sky. Maybe that’s why I need to touch you all the time, a desire to understand what is beyond our reach. Hey, I’m talking to you. Do you understand what I mean?”
He’s a very anxious man, she thinks, observing his need to talk in between sexual intervals. She doesn’t understand why. Love, for her, is a fantasy she likes to imagine, and not to complicate in words or metaphors.
The man penetrates her and she gives herself easily. There’s something, however, that escapes her, something unknown and within, that she wants to get rid of. In the end, he seems satisfied.
“What’s your occupation?” he insists. “By your walk on the airport, your posture in the lounge bar, I would say you’re a businesswoman who works for a fashion company. Am I right?” He asks, flipping through a menu. “Can we have breakfast before you go?”
He is caressing her feet, sitting on the edge of the bed, as if to please her. Her skin is soft, and she fears something has been lost inside of that man. The intimacy is bothersome to her. The immensity of his chest brings her memories of childhood that she wants to forget, her brother, and others after him. But it’s only a beat. It’s always like so.
Outside, the day is about to rise. His back is wide, reflected against the mirror, the sky in the background. On the bedside table, she sees the drawing on the napkin, a door made of stars, stretched over a woman’s body. She tries to see herself in that image, recalling his words. “I want to picture you in a piece of paper. I love your body because it makes me think about pauses. Is there anything you want me to understand? Why don’t you say anything?”
The woman recalls the man’s words and recognizes his attempt of communication. They were in Paris but she didn’t know the name of the street, the neighborhood, or the region. Facing the hotel balcony, she touches the white curtain, transparent, that hides the river that seems to extend through the city. She won’t have breakfast with him. Even if she wanted, she wouldn’t know what to tell him in that situation. So she changes her clothes and leaves the room by herself.
Lovings (click to read. You must have adobe reader for this file. To get it for free, click here.)
The soil was like sand. Strawberries dropped in it were dusted with fine powder like sugar. When wet, it was slick. Silky to run your fingers through but gritty in your mouth on the strawberries you picked and ate. Paper-bag brown colored, the first drop of blood turned purple on that dirt and it didn’t look wet. What you thought was, “Blood is absorbed.”
The blood didn’t pool around your grandmother’s head. The dirt sucked her blood into itself, and you were young, only five years old, but that was scarier than the blood itself. It was scarier than the still body of your grandmother on the ground after the tractor and the wagon had passed over her.
You couldn’t see what your mother had or hadn’t done. You faced behind. You watched the places where you had already been. You saw the dogs run behind the wagon and weave through the tall weeds along the side of the road. You heard your mother and grandmother’s voices under the low rumble of the tractor, but you could not see them from where you sat.
You heard your mother’s cry and then you felt the wagon boards ripple beneath you. Your grandmother’s body emerged, first her head, eyes closed and scalp showing through thin, white hair. Then the print of blue flowers on her blouse, the dark brown of the old pair of slacks she always wore to work. Finally her feet, bare and bent at strange angles, one blue vein outlined against the white skin on the soles of her feet.
The tractor stopped and your mother threw herself at the sandy soil where your grandmother lay. This is what you remember.
This and silence. If there was screaming, you didn’t hear it. No sobbing. No whimpering from your grandmother. No cries for help. Just you on the back of the wagon, your feet dangling over the side, your mother and grandmother in the dirt. Your grandmother’s hand jerked.
This is the moment that comes back to you again and again in your dreams.
No one ever asked you how your grandmother fell. Farming is dangerous work. Tractors are not children’s toys; they are large and dangerous animals. The stories you have been told of limbs and lives lost in the name of growing things are endless. Sometimes, you can imagine a hell where all the detached arms and legs go on in their disembodied way–driving tractors and hoeing endless rows.
The accident draws a thick line between before and after. Before the accident, there were peach trees on the farm. After the accident, the peaches died in the frost. Your uncle cut them all down. After, they bought boxes of peaches from Georgia and told the people at the stand they were local. “They’re local somewhere,” your grandmother would say to the wide-eyed women and then she would turn to you and wink.
Before the accident, your uncle drove the tractor slow and you rode beside him. He would pull the apples from the trees and cut them into slices for you with his pocket knife. After the accident, he let your father drive.
Before the accident, your father came home at 5:00 every evening smelling of aftershave and coffee. After the accident, your father left his job in the city to help out on the farm and he didn’t go back for years.
After the accident you saw that the farm was a series of deadly traps, lined up and lying in wait. “Don’t let your clothes get caught in the sorter.” “Watch your fingers around the digger.” “Watch out for the tractor wheels.” “Don’t ride on the front of the wagon, you might fall off.” The soil of the farm had taken your great-uncle before you were even born. A tractor wheel caught him and buried him in the earth. His wife found his crushed body in the field, the tractor wheels still grinding away.
After, your mother saw accusations everywhere.
If you didn’t eat your supper fast enough, you were accusing her of being a bad cook. If you didn’t wear the shirt she bought you, you didn’t like her taste in clothes. If you asked when your dad would be home, you didn’t love her. You lived in a storm of disappointment raining from the sky.
Your uncle sold all but a small patch of the farm to developers who turned it into a subdivision. Your grandmother moved into one of the new houses, the old farmhouse torn down. “This is where we always put the potatoes,” she’d say, sitting in her living room staring out at the bare dirt yard where the grass hadn’t come in yet.
You were in high school then. Your uncle lived on one small patch and the city bought the rest to turn into a park, but that never happened. The barn sat there, a padlock on its front door to keep the kids from getting inside.
Your uncle got a job delivering the mail. Your father went back to work in the city. Your mother filled the kitchen sink with hot, soapy water and stood there, her hands disappearing inside the suds.
One weekend you came home from college without telling your parents. You drove by the subdivision and the empty barn and saw your mother’s car, but she wasn’t inside. You stood there in the shadows and remembered the smell of everyone gathered in the barn on rainy mornings–wet clothes and mud. You wandered through what was left of the apple orchard, their bare branches dark against the sky.
You found your mother next to the creek in the sandy soil where your grandmother fell off the wagon. Here was where she hit her head on the heavy iron hitch that attached the wagon to the tractor. Here was where the rounded pin crushed part of her skull and the shifting you felt was the wagon rolling over her leg. No one thought she would live.
Your mother sat on a grey blanket, staring out into the empty field beyond the creek.
You don’t know if she heard you come down the path. You don’t know if she sensed you standing there so still. Did she know you were there as you crossed your arms tight across your body and watched the shadow patterns of the leaves across her blanket? You’re not sure how long you stayed before you turned back down the path in fear. You went so quietly, as if your life depended on the ability to steal away.
No one ever talked about the rumors. Your grandmother’s accident was a story no one ever told. You knew all about the time your grandfather cut off the tip of his pinkie. When your father almost fell out of the peach tree onto a pair of shears. Your uncle dozing on the tractor and waking up a mile down the road. These were the stories that were told. Never your grandmother and the wagon. Never the pool of purple blood.
You lived in that town until you left for college. You came back every summer. You went to school and church and the county fair and you’re sure no one ever spoke about your grandmother and the wagon.
You absorbed the suspicions in the air you breathed. It was fed to you in the food you ate until one day, you became aware of what you knew. Your mother might have pushed your grandmother off the front of the tractor in order to free herself once and for all.
Once at your parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, your uncle took several sips of good bourbon and told your father that he had become a city boy. Your uncle still owned the old tractor. He kept on raising tobacco or keeping cattle or baling hay on the little plot of land he’d kept.
You were newly married then. Your uncle and father didn’t even notice you were there when they began telling stories about your grandmother and her meanness. The time she kept everyone in the field picking tomatoes for three hours in 90 degree weather. The quarter she would put in her grandchildren’s birthday cards every year until she died. The switch she would take to your uncle and your mother’s behind. The way she would hound her own husband out of the shade of the barn and back into the field, even when everyone thought it might kill him. The feud with the neighboring farm she kept alive for so many years that no one could remember what it had ever been about. The time she told her children that they were nothing more to her than cheap labor for the farm.
“I’m sure she said an affectionate word sometime,” your uncle said “But--” The smile faded from his face. “Well,” he said. He and your father stood staring deep into the bottoms of their empty bourbon glasses.
You wanted to ask someone. You wanted to ask your uncle, but he slipped away slowly and forgot who you were. Then he was gone. In the room when your father passed, there were other things to say. Your mother was the only one left.
Your grandmother in the nursing home grew smaller and smaller over time, as if her whole body diminished. She lost the leg that had been run over by the tractor to poor circulation. Then she lost the other. The nurses smiled at your family in a tense way when you came to visit.
One Thanksgiving, you went to visit her and then caught the flu. You spent days in bed and your fevered dreams were filled with your grandmother and the farm.
You dreamed both her legs grew back. You dreamed you saw her under the wagon again, the pool of blood around her head. In your dream she opened an eye to look up at you.
You dreamed you saw your mother as a small girl; she asked your grandmother for penny candy in the store and your grandmother knocked her to the ground.
You dreamed you were sitting in that spot on the farm. You picked up handfuls of dirt and shoved them in your mouth. Your grandmother whispered at you to remember the taste.
You dreamed you were back in your grandmother’s room in the nursing home and she explained everything to you–about your mother, and the accident, and the farm, and her meanness and your life. You felt in the fever dream a sense of release and understanding. When the fever broke and you woke, you couldn’t remember what she said.
Your grandmother’s funeral was crowded. No one liked her, but they knew her. They showed up. One shrunken old man shook your mother’s hand next to yours and said, “Can’t believe she didn’t die all those years ago when she fell off the tractor. Too mean, I guess.” You watched for some response, but your mother only smiled. You had never seen the old man before and you never saw him again. He melted into the funeral crowd and disappeared. You asked your mother later who he was, and she said she didn’t remember anyone like that. No one like that at all.
Your children didn’t know your grandmother and don’t know your mother. They sit at her kitchen table one summer morning and ask her if corn will kill them if they eat it raw. She smiles at your children, smiles at you. Over the years her smile has come to cover many things.
Now the old farm is going to become a community garden. They will be planting in that soil again.
Your father is gone. Your uncle is gone. Your children have never woken up in the spring and summer at six in the morning to begin the day on the farm. They’ve never worn long pants and a long shirt to keep their arms and legs from turning green, brushing for hours up against the hairy tomato vines. Their skin has never turned patchy red and itched from bean leaves and corn stalks. They’ve never become so soaked in the early morning dew that their skin starts to wrinkle and prune. They’ve never had their clothes caked in dirt from crawling along in the mud to pick up potatoes.
In all these years, your mother has never planted anything but flowers. She lives as an island in a community of vegetable gardeners. She nods at her neighbors’ offers of corn and tomatoes, but deals herself only in roses and peonies.
And now you find yourself back on the farm. The people at the community garden have asked your family to come in the spring–to be with them as they begin to plant. They want to know about the farm and the family–its history.
You want to go. You want to show your children the places you knew. You want their feet on that soil. You remember the taste of the peaches before the trees were torn down, the sticky juice in the warm summer sun. The early morning mist that clung to the low fields in the morning. The sound of mourning doves calling to each other. Sticking your head up above a row of tomato plants to spot your mother’s bent back. The silence of the work. The chorus of potatoes being dropped in wooden bushel baskets.
When you ask your mother, she says yes and all of you go.
It’s spring and the ground for the garden is freshly plowed. You can smell the soil. Your mother moves quietly among the gardeners. They are thrilled to be planting things. They have tested the soil and they show her the results. “It is good,” they tell her. “Fertile.” Your children run like animals through the open spaces.
You show the gardeners what’s left of the farm path from one field to another. You try to remember what was planted in each field–where the peach trees used to be and a few scraggly apple trees still stand. Your mother trails along and blends in–just another old woman.
You have no intention of stopping in that spot. You have told your spouse so. You shared your secret long ago, and there was sympathy, and the passionate unpacking of what it all meant that comes with new love. Then the secret faded as something important between the two of you, to become not something dark at all, but just an amusing family anecdote that was never told.
But deep down, it feels like a dark corner in the house of your childhood.
A child stumbles, just there. Her toe catches a rock, and her bright green jacket is covered in that fine dust. An older woman spots a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and the whole group is stopped right there in that place. Your mother is staring at the ground.
“This is where my mother fell off the tractor wagon,” you hear your mother say to a young man standing next to her. He leans down towards her and her eyes find yours briefly. “She almost died.”
The child is crying, and her mother is dusting off the dirt. You were so small, then. They would leave you on the blanket in the shade with Matchbox cars. The blanket was soft, but the dirt was softer. You could trail your fingers into it and make shapes, draw maps of territories in your mind. It feels like the first thing you can remember, the feel of that dirt, the view from the cool shade looking into the sun of the hot field where your mother and your grandmother were bent over plants you were too young to identify. Your mother would unbend and wave at you and then look up into the sky for a long moment before bending down again.
Mother slaps me across the face. It isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.
I have come to the nursing home again, pretending to be the dutiful daughter. The nurse shakes her head as she leaves my mother’s room.
“She’s out of control,” the nurse says. “She’s…”
Although she doesn’t say it aloud, I see her mouth “crazy” as she darts out the door. Crazy is a word that could have described my mother at any point in her life. But now her behavior is intensified and diagnosed by health care professionals.
“Mother, did they feed you?”
“They hate me as much as you do.”
“Come on, let’s get you into bed. You need to rest.”
“I fell on the black ice walking to the grocery store. That’s why my head isn’t right. You had to be fed again. Always eating. That’s why you’re fat.” She points to my stomach and laughs.
“Yes, mother,” I say.
Five years ago, she started to look at me without a sign of recognition. I thought she was playing a new game with me. For the first time, she forgot she hated me. I was a stranger she wanted to get to know every time she met me. It was a fresh start each day for her.
I was happy and guilty at once. Was I selfish? I, of course, could not start over every day. I could not forget all she had done.
Growing up, no one could know what was really going on in our family. No one could know about the unhappiness, the shouting and the regrets. I was not allowed to speak in front of others so our secrets would not accidentally slip out.
But as the years passed by, she let our dirty little secrets slip. Was it guilt, lapses in her defenses, or remorse? I could never tell. She never apologized, only confessing bits and pieces at a time for no apparent reason.
I fold her clothes and put them in her wardrobe closet. It is small and I imagine no one could fit inside although my mother insists she hides in there to get away from the scary little girl. The white, old plywood releases a musty odor which reminds me of my childhood hiding place.
My closet was built above the staircase so it was almost as large as my bedroom. It had two levels and I had to climb up into it. The main area was for hanging clothes and the back area was for storage. When she couldn’t look at me anymore, she locked me in there. I would climb underneath all the blankets and try to cover up all our secrets and sins. For a brief time, the warmth of the heavy comforters almost masked the coldness in my life.
I thought up scenarios in my head of telling her off, challenging her lies or being somewhere else. But most of the time, after hearing her news flashes, I would hide for hours and cry. I listened for footsteps that would rescue me but they never came. Eventually, she unlocked the door and I climbed out from under the blankets. Life went on until the next time she decided to hurt me.
“Nurse, can you wash my hair?”
I realize my mother is speaking to me. I put her into the tub and lather the organic shampoo she imports from France through her hair. I dunk her head into the water to rinse out the suds. She pushes my hands away.
“Please don’t kill me. I told you we would never go back to the beach and we didn’t.”
Her voice rips into a cavern of silence. Her eyes widen. She steps back and crosses her arms in front of her face to place a barrier between us. She knows who I am now.
When I turned seven, we went to the beach to celebrate my birthday. I vaguely remember her pulling me into the lake to play. This was an odd occurrence because she never feigned interest in me before. But for some reason I remember not being able to come out of the water. She seemed to be holding me down for a very long time. Then I saw daylight. I assumed she couldn’t go through with it.
“Mommy, are you trying to kill me?” I asked.
She said nothing because nothing had happened. She claimed I had floated out of her arms. She panicked and grabbed me, causing me to fall deeper into the water. Of course, this was at great risk to her because she could not swim herself. I was ungrateful again.
“I was your hero but you never thanked me for saving your life,” she says.
She wanders out of the bathroom soaking wet and asks me to put make-up on her. I run to her with a towel and dry off her worn body. She looks down at her stomach, pulls at her stretch marks and screams, “Look what you have done to me.”
She always told me she was beautiful before I came. She had been the most beautiful girl in her small town. The others girl envied her straight black hair. The boys were mesmerized by her violet eyes. Destined for the movies, she started modeling for a prominent fashion designer whose name she did not remember. He promised to introduce her to a famous movie producer and gave her an eight-carat amethyst ring to seal the deal. It was only a matter of time before fame would come. I was her only obstacle.
She ballooned from a size zero to an unbearable size six. Her skin stretched out. Her figure was gone. “You scratched my insides like a cockroach that never slept,” she said.
As I start applying her eye shadow she says flatly, “Don’t let them revive me. You know you died when you were a baby. It’s best not to mess with God’s plan.”
She said I was a sickly baby and never stopped crying. She tried to comfort me one night but I stopped breathing. She took me to the closest 24-hour clinic. The doctor on duty said it was too late. He would not work on me without a bribe.
“He took my amethyst ring. The amethyst ring! What a waste of eight carats!” she cries.
I know to stand still when she becomes agitated. She wants to make her point and prove she had been a good mother. It is my job to affirm her statements so I wait for her to finish.
“If I had known, I would have worn my other ring,” she says pointing at her empty finger.
“We’ll get you another one,” I say.
I wait for more but she asks about Dan. She has never done this before. I married a man so much like my father that she shuddered every time someone mentioned his name.
I came here today to tell her that I’m pregnant. Dan doesn’t want the baby. He has already moved on. A small part of me thought my mother would be supportive. Even if she acts like a real mother to me now, she isn’t herself. Do I want her to congratulate me or talk me out of it?
Will I see her smirk on my baby’s lips? Will I see Dan in my child as she saw my father’s face in me? I hold her hand as I ponder my choices.
She doesn’t recognize me again. I wonder if unhappiness passes through our genes or is it poured over us by our parents like muddy water staining our souls.
“Visiting hours are over,” says a nurse I haven’t seen before. I wonder if the first nurse I saw tonight refused to come back. It wouldn’t be the first time Mother drove someone away.
I look over to my mother to say good-bye. Mother is in love with her reflection.
“I’m the prettiest girl in the world,” she says. She kisses mirror.
I smile, confirming her statement.
I lean against the door and rub my belly. There is nothing I can do except to come back tomorrow and play our little game again – she, trying to remember and I, trying to forget.
John Duncan Talbird
In the morning, I rise with the sun and go out onto my veranda with my grandfather’s long sword to awaken my limbs and let the sun, hinting at the coming heat, fall against my skin. I do this naked. I try to remember how my grandfather told me to hold the sword, how to place my arms, how to stand on my legs, how to wrap my fingers around the grip. I can feel my muscles moving beneath the skin and know that I’m awake. I lop off the heads of poppies and peonies and, after a while, return inside for coffee and bread, sit at my tiny square kitchen table affixed to the wall, curling and uncurling my toes on the cool linoleum, blinking beneath the fluorescent lights in the ceiling, yawning and rubbing my eyes and scratching myself until it’s time to get dressed and start my day. Although I don’t have a job to go to anymore, I manage to fill the time: digging post holes for fences, pulling down cactuses with my tractor, making Swiss cheese of makeshift targets with my grandfather’s 9 mm F1 submachine gun.
Grandfather Randel died last winter and left me his New Mexico farm with its rows of grapes and pistachio trees. There isn’t much for me to do as the same foreman, a Mexican with little English, has been running the place for nearly three decades and isn’t keen on my input anyway. What do I know about growing nuts or making wine? And he and the immigrant farm hands are happy as long as they can punch out when they want, take their fiestas, have their religious holidays, get paid on time—I don’t even write the checks, there’s an accountant to make sure the bills get paid. I also get a monthly payday just for doing nothing and so I putter around the house, looking for things to do, shooting off my grandpa’s guns and sometimes half-wishing I had a reason to kill. I have become so intimate with this land in the last year that I feel sometimes I can see it from above, as if it were a map laid out before me on my little breakfast nook table.
I had known the land already from many visits to my grandpa. He would invite me, his namesake, letting my parents know that they weren’t welcome and neither was my sister. My grandmother had died from TB by the time I was born and my grandfather had settled back into his bachelorhood and seemed restlessly grim as if waiting for something. We stayed up late and in the morning, he would teach me to fence or shoot a gun with some kind of accuracy. He took me on his rounds and I’d listen to him talk to the workers in Spanish and he’d teach me a few choice phrases: Rápido, ven aquí! or, less usefully, Tu madre es una puta! We would watch the stars at night in that sky that was so much larger than the city where my parents lived, a sky so full of twinkling activity that it seemed inconceivable that we could be alone in the universe.
I had been a teacher back East before my grandpa’s death, an adjunct piecing together work lecturing intro physics and astronomy to classrooms of teenagers and young twenty-somethings at various colleges and universities in the city, trying to get a fulltime job and knowing that each year that became less and less likely. So when Grandfather Randel finally succumbed to the lung cancer which had been killing him for a decade and when it was discovered—shockingly, it seemed, to the rest of the family—that I had inherited his entire fortune, yes, all of it, then I thought Wahoo! I’m moving to the desert. Fuck higher education. I broke up with my girlfriend, I quit my teaching jobs mid-semester, and I broke my lease and moved across the continent with as few of my belongings as I deemed necessary, driving my ‘98 Toyota which broke down outside Memphis. I came the rest of the way in a used Ford truck I bought from a one-armed man in a dirt lot.
It’s been almost a year, the seasons only shifting slightly as the calendar speeds forward here in the desert. I worry that I may be going crazy. My days are fogged with monotony and loneliness, the swelter creating a general haze in the world like the air has became soup or spilled paint. I feel, as I walk my land—the sound of singing coming from the fields undercut with the shriek of cicada and the grumble of various types of machinery which makes this work possible, machines that I know nothing about—that there is someone out there watching. Perhaps my grandpa, maybe my ex-girl who has stopped calling my cell, or perhaps, even more possible, an alien who will abduct me in the night. I know about New Mexico, I know that this is where they come, where their ships hover and then land in the night glowing, spitting out little bald, black-eyed men who take people for their experiments. I swing my blade and shoot my gun and wait.
Jack shattered his opponent’s sword and then, before the metal shards could fall, backhanded them. Several fragments of shrapnel entered his nemesis’ chest, puncturing the lungs and heart in multiple places. Liters of blood made the hardwood floor slick red and within minutes he was dead. Jack cleaned his sword on the drapes, drank two glasses of water in the kitchen, and left.
Waiting on the 4th Street platform for the F train, another assassin challenged him. She was young, almost a girl, and cute despite the blood lust in her eyes. Jack thought that in another life she could have been his girlfriend or at least a friend. It’s a shame that one of us has to die he thought. When he delivered the mortal blow—thrust, midsection—she perished silently, beautifully. And just in time, as the train pulled into the station then.
On board, a teenaged girl was speaking loudly to her friend: “And so I says you best step off, bitch, if you don’t want me coming upside your face. She says you better not even try to do that shit and I say oh, bitch, you know I’ll do more ‘n try.” Jack wiped the blood from his sword with an abandoned newspaper, sheathed it, sat across from the girls. While he waited for his stop and pretended to read the ads in Plexiglas frames near the ceiling, he eavesdropped. The loud one was white, the other, black. Jack was yellow, though, perhaps that is racist to say so; it’s more accurate to say he was Asian-American, even more accurate to say he was Japanese-American, first-generation, the son of immigrants.
The black girl was chewing gum, blew a large, red bubble, popped it, sucked it back into her mouth. Jack slowly became aware that the two girls were talking about him. When it was time to get off—Stillwell Ave., Coney Island, the last stop on the line—the girls followed. As they walked down the boardwalk, the loud girl yelled, “Hey, dude, let us see your sword!” They passed a bar with its doors thrown open, drunks lounging in front of taps, a couple swaying to country music on the jukebox. The metal gates were pulled down on most of the hotdog and pizza stands, though some bored Latino tried, futilely, to sell pretzels which no longer gave off an aroma of anything. Jack slipped off the boardwalk and into the park that lies between Coney Island and Brighton Beach, but the girls sped up and followed him onto the handball courts.
The white girl said, “You’re running out of places to go, yo” and her friend said, “That’s right,” and popped her gum. “Your mother’s a whore,” the white girl added, as if in afterthought, pulling out a gun, a double-action semi-automatic compact pistol. Through the open window of a nearby apartment a child fumbled through his piano lesson, seeming to spell words with his fingers: F-A-D-E, C-A-G-E, D-E-A-D…
“I told you that bitch wasn’t shit,” said the white girl carrying Jack’s sword as she and her friend went back up onto the boardwalk, leaving the samurai bleeding onto the pale pavement.
“You didn’t leave her there like that?” Claire asked when she heard about what had happened. The story seemed like something out of fiction, something set in a blue-collar backwater, not a gated community in Dutchess County, NY. Stuart didn’t want to talk about it, thought Claire was blowing things out of proportion, but she insisted, “That’s the point, she was dead.”
Stuart and a few of his friends had discovered a girl’s naked body in a drainage ditch while they were playing golf at the country club. This sounded like a plotline lifted from the fictional Sunnydale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show Claire and her friends had been fanatical about in college. The newspaper identified the girl as Susan Miller and stated that, although the cause of death was inconclusive as of yet, she had two deep puncture marks on her neck. Next to the article was an informative piece detailing the following day’s total solar eclipse. All of lower New York state would be plunged into complete darkness. A chill passed through Claire as she imagined the contours of black figures rising from the ground in that brief time of extinguished daylight.
Out in the front yard, the snowman their son, Dean, had built over the weekend was melting into the dirty grass. There was an undefined meaning in that image which made Claire chew at her lower lip, alternately watching her frustrated husband and the front yard as if she expected attack from either location.
The doorbell rang then, startling a shout from her, but it was just Jaime, Stuart’s friend from across the street. There was a phosphorescent glow in the little boy’s eyes as he asked if Stuart could come out to play. In that moment, Claire knew what she’d been searching for in her husband’s face and words, and she concluded that she would find it in eyes all across Dutchess County if only she were to look. Red dripped from the corner of the little boy’s mouth, incisors glistening in the overcast day. She remembered what her friend from college, Teresa, said about vampires, that you had to invite them inside or they were powerless to enter. But vampire trivia she knew from 19th century novels became confused with contemporary popular culture in her mind. The little boy’s pupils were solid black dots in his face.
Slamming the door, she went to the office to consult the Old Farmer’s Almanac. It was there that she realized she had to get to the Chapel of the Pines where the funeral services were to be held; she would find what she needed in the chapel’s apse.
The sun was almost down by the time she got there, one lone cricket screaming somewhere in the scraggly bushes lining the church. Next door, in the fellowship hall, the mourners were eating pie and the body had been left alone in its open casket, eyes closed as if sleeping a dreamless sleep. A man with a long, grizzly beard was whittling a stake in the first pew and, when Claire came through the door, he handed it to her. OK, she thought as she walked down the aisle toward the casket, taking a deep breath, right through the heart.